Monday, March 31, 2003

Better Late Than Never

Today's Commercial Appeal has excerpts from an article that first appeared in Public Interest and was also discussed in USA Today. It is based on studies done by the authors that showed that affirmative action programs at universities don't really achieve the results they intend. The article is part of a series the Commercial Appeal is doing on race relations, as the US Supreme Court is hearing arguments tomorrow on a Michigan case involving racial preferences at colleges and universities.

I've already seen this discussed around the Internet, so the Commercial Appeal is late, as print will be, in getting around to it. But better late than never!

Basically, the study was the first to look at actual student attitudes, divorced from the usual PC education and the desire of students to give the appropriate answer to authority figures. What they found was a vast gulf between the beliefs of professors and administrators, who tended to see what their PC doctrine taught them, and the students, who lived what anecdotal evidence has been showing for years.

When asked carefully (read the article for discussion of how it's done), they found that students tended not to see evidence of racism on their campuses, nor to believe in race preferences in admissions. The study also found, tellingly I think, that perceptions of a satisfactory university experience fell as minority enrollment increased! PC says that the opposite result is expected.

This ties in with another article in the Commercial Appeal that says:
All students benefit from a diverse student body - diverse racially, ethnically, geographically and ideologically. That's true even when classroom topics don't include race-loaded issues such as racial profiling. It's also true when students interact outside the classroom.
It's the usual PC mantra that the above study contradicts.

It also shows how much the purpose of a university education has changed over the past 50 years. It used to be that attending higher education served one of two purposes: either to provide the necessary extra training for a specialised field (law, medicine, etc.) or to give a common background to young men from families of means and connections.

It's the latter that has changed. It used to be that young men would come from all over their States, or from the country in the case of Harvard, Yale, et al., from families with different backgrounds, and from different educational achievement. These were the men who were expected to become the leaders of government and business in a few years. University life was intended to give them a common background of speech, reference, knowledge, behavior and expectation. It pasted over diversity with a veneer of common experience and bonding. It both raised and lowered the young men, making them all peers. It pressed them into the new social realm they would be moving in.

Now, we expect college to do the opposite, taking kids from a presumed sameness of life, from the presumed cocoons of segregated suburbia they inhabited, and force them into collision with difference, all in the loving and supportive embrace of professors and administrators who were supposed to teach them all how to get along, just as they would be expected to get along in the Big New World of Tomorrow that socialists dream of. In that view it becomes important to get minorities into college not for the benefits that would accrue to the minorities, but for the benefit of the white masses.

The result we've seen. Blacks, frequently intimidated by the high-pressure, low-support atmosphere of majority white universities -- cut off frequently from family support -- tend to clump together. Whites, both fearing the minorities and fearing charges of racism that can flow from misunderstandings, as well as always suspecting that some lower standard helped the minority, tend to be aloof. It works just the opposite of intentions.

State universities are stuck. By law they cannot discriminate on the basis of race. If it's wrong for whites, legally it's wrong for blacks, unless new law allows racial preferences, which always have the result of tainting those they intend to help. But they do want to get at least a representative sampling of their community.

The best answer is the most difficult. Don't tinker with or lower entrance expectations on grade, class ranking or achievement, but redefine what makes a good university candidate. Include softer, more subjective measures alongside the stricter numerical ones. It means looking at the kind of student the university wants to turn out, the kind of adult they want to make of the youth that comes in. What has the student done to make it to college? How difficult is the challenge for them, and the how successful the attempt? What does the student want to do with their education? What opportunities does the university offer that the student wants? How motivated are they? Make this clear on the front end, so that applicants know it takes more than grades to get in. Regularly review the people in the selection committee to make sure they stay fresh and open-minded.

It's tougher this way, but fairer to everyone involved.

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